All over the world on a particular day millions of men and women and children do an extraordinary thing. They enter a place of worship and kneel, close their eyes, and wait. They wait for someone to come carrying a small bowl of black ashes. These ashes have been made by burning some dried palm branches which a year before were carried around in procession in this same place of worship.
The person bearing the ashes goes to each one kneeling, dips his or her thumb in the bowl, then touches the kneeler’s forehead, marking it with ash. As this is done the kneeling person hears a simple but devastating statement about their lives “You are dust and to dust you shall return.
Why do we do this extraordinary act in this year of 2022? Some think it depressing, some think it primitive, even unhealthy. After all, we know all too well that we return to dust. Do we really need literally to rub it in? We are beginning to be aware that if we are not very careful we will turn the whole planet to dust one of these days. Do we need to drive this in so starkly?
The answer is yes, we do. Because it is only by acting out something like this, utterly simple yet chillingly stark, that we can realize the tremendously important message we are receiving.
Over 4000 years ago, in two powerful and vivid images, the unknown writer of Genesis told us the story of who and what we are as human beings. “The Lord God, the writer writes, formed humanity of dust from the ground”. But it doesn’t end there. The writer continues, “God breathed into humanity’s nostrils the breath of life”.
So something of supreme importance has happened to this dust . It remains dust, nothing changes that. But that same dust is now made rich beyond measure with the infusion of divine life. Two wonderful things follow. Because a human being is more than a physical entity therefore a human being is given supreme significance. Yes, we exploit and wrong one another, even attack and kill one another, but we do so at the price of incalculable guilt.
Again, the fact of God breathing on our dust gives us a deep hope for human nature. In the ancient story we are given responsibility for the created order of which we ourselves are a part. All such responsibility depends on our remembering this, that we too are creatures, children of the same inconceivable majesty that forms creation, the stars above us, the earth beneath our feet, the air we breathe. All the brilliance, creativity, thought and imagination of the human enterprise is possible as the shimmering traces of the divine breath within us.
Sally McFague was a towering voice in what we are coming to call Environmental Theology. I still can feel the thrill of hearing her voice for the first time saying “We must get to the point of realizing that because the planet is part of the body of God, when we pollute the air we poison the lungs of God, and when we pollute a river we are poisoning the arteries of God.”
When you kneel again and close your eyes to receive the ashes of Wednesday, listen for the song of creation. It is telling you who and what you really are, and what you and I are called to be in the mystery of it all.
Stock photo ID:1300804890
Credit: Fredrica Aban